Coronavirus Act gives government unprecedented power; concerns over attempts to erode media freedom

Association and Peaceful Assembly

University staff strike over employment conditions

In November and December 2019 university staff went on strike over pension, pay and working conditions. The strikes affected approximately half of the UK’s universities.

On 20th February 2020 UK university staff began the ‘biggest university strike’ with 14 days of walkouts. It is estimated that 50,000 lecturers, technicians, librarians and other academic and support staff at 74 universities took part in the strike action. The University and College Union (UCU) says that the strike is because of “universities' failure to make significant improvements on pay, equality, casualisation and workloads".

Charities face possible closure

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) warned that the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic will force many charities in the country to shut down. It will also severely impact the capacities of the remaining organisations that are able to continue working.

“With charity shops shut and fundraising events cancelled, we’ve estimated charities stand to lose around £4bn in 12 weeks as a result of the crisis – and that’s a conservative estimate. The Institute of Fundraising’s survey of charities, in partnership with NCVO and the Charity Finance Group, found charities expecting to lose nearly half of their fundraised income, even as demands placed upon many of them soar.” - Elizabeth Chamberlain, head of policy and public services at NCVO.

On 8th April 2020 the government announced £750m in funding for charities responding to the crisis by providing essential services like delivery of food and medicines. However, the Department for International Development is not planning to deliver financial support to international charities. NCVO said that “this is an important start, but more is needed” because several organisations will not be supported by the measures.

Protest calls for UK lockdown

On 16th March 2020, a group known as “Pause the System” staged a protest against the government’s response to the pandemic wearing hazmat suits outside Downing Street. The group which wore face masks and gloves called on the government to lock down the UK.

The group made three demands in their petition:

  • To ‘pause the system’ by halting non-essential business, closing schools, carrying out widespread testing and taking private clinics into public ownership;
  • To support everyone and take care of the vulnerable by providing basic income and full statutory sick pay for all people, pausing mortgage and rent payments and ensuring that marginalised and vulnerable people are taken care of;
  • To ‘transform the system’ to prevent future pandemics.
Coronavirus Act labelled “draconian”

On 25th March 2020, the Coronavirus Act 2020 became law. On 19th March 2020, civil liberties group Big Brother Watch warned that the Coronavirus Bill contains the “most draconian powers in peacetime Britain" by:

  • “Empowering police, immigration officers and public health officials to demand documentation; detain and isolate members of the public, potentially indefinitely, including children; and forcibly take biological samples for testing
  • Permitting prohibition of public events and gatherings without standard protections for strikes and industrial action that exist in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004
  • Weakening safeguards on the exercise of mass surveillance powers by quadrupling time review limits for urgent warrants.”

The organisation states that the sweeping powers made possible by this law are “unprecedented, unexplained and simply unjustified.”

“The Bill contains blank-cheque powers to detain and test ‘potentially infectious’ members of the public and even children in unidentified isolation facilities on threat of criminal sanctions. That could be any one of us. It contains sweeping powers to shut down even political assemblies, which could thwart the possibility of public protest against this power grab in the months ahead,” - Director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo.

The Network for Police Monitoring (NETPOL) also stressed that two years is too long for this legislation to be in place and called for a restriction of police powers. According to rights organisations in the country, a review of the law every six months is not adequate, but rather the assessment should happen on a month by month basis and the government should justify whether the measures are needed to protect the right to life. The group raised concern that the bill could create a situation allowing the police to use force in a disproportionate manner and where it “becomes normal for the police to have absolute authority to decide when and whether a gathering in a public place may go ahead, even after the current crisis starts to abate and in circumstances that have little to do with stopping the spread of the virus.”

Additionally, in its decision to limit gatherings from now until 2022, there is no mention of protecting rights to freedom of assembly. NETPOL and the Undercover Research Group will monitor the everyday impact of the new policing powers and whether they are used proportionately.

Rights groups also argue that the act discriminates against people with disabilities and mental health patients.

Expression

New government’s tactic to undermine the work of journalists

In the aftermath of parliamentary elections - held in December 2019 - and amidst the final steps of Brexit negotiations, Reporters without Borders underlined several worrying steps put in place by the UK government, through the PM’s cabinet, to undermine freedom of expression.

An example was the attempt by the Prime Minister’s Director of Communications to exclude several journalists (among which the Mirror, HuffPost, PoliticsHome, the Independent) from “No10 technical background briefing on the UK’s future relationship with the EU”. Journalists who received the invitation to the briefing were asked by security to stand on one side of the foyer, while those who were denied access had to stand on the other side. The ones banned were asked to leave and, as a sign of protest, all the journalists walked out from Downing Street.

This ban happened recently after the decision to move the daily news briefing from the usual location, Parliament, to the PM’s residence. Journalists fear that it could lead to a limitation of the freedom of the press as restricting access for security reasons could be used as an excuse. For this reason, they wrote a letter to the Prime Minister expressing their concern that “the new system will create barriers to covering democracy and impede the vital work of a free press.” The episode around the briefing on Brexit confirmed these concerns.

Parallel to this, in December 2019 the Prime Minister was considering decriminalising the non-payment of TV licence fees which fund, among others, the main public broadcaster, the BBC. BBC revenues are made up of 75% of this fee. To evaluate the move, the PM opened a consultation process among his party members. An earlier review on this matter was led in 2015 and reached the conclusion that decriminalising the fee would increase the risk of evasion and considered a “civil debt”.

Following this move, the government also forbade its ministers from attending the BBC Today programme on Radio 4 (dealing with news and current affairs). This is seen as another step aimed at delegitimising the public broadcaster. 

“Restrictions on journalists’ access and threats against public service media are nothing short of alarming [...]. We call on the Prime Minister to ensure that such steps are immediately ceased, and that this government is acting in line with the country’s obligations to protect and respect press freedom,” - RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent.
Increasing use of SLAPPs lawsuits against journalists

Journalist Carole Cadwalladr was investigating the funding that the Leave.EU campaign and its founder Arrow Banks received and his ties to Russia. According to RSF, due to her investigation, Cadwalladr became the target of two SLAPPs (strategic lawsuit against public participation). Organisations are now calling for Banks to drop the lawsuits. In December 2019, Cadwalladr started a crowdfunding campaign to cover the high legal costs.

Eight international freedom of expression organisations have reported how SLAPPs are increasingly being used to “silence public interest reporting – a trend that is posing a growing threat to freedom of expression internationally.”

Developments in the investigation regarding the murder of Lyra McKee

Journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead in the line of duty during rioting in the Creggan area of Derry, Northern Ireland on 18th April 2019. On 11th February 2020, the police service of Northern Ireland announced that they had arrested four men in connection with the murder. The following day, one of the men was charged with murder and was found in possession of a firearm.

“We welcome this important step towards justice for the senseless killing of Lyra McKee. No journalist should face the threat of violence in doing their job - not in the UK, and not anywhere. All those responsible for this heinous attack must be brought to justice, and better protections must be put in place to ensure the safety of journalists working throughout the country,” said RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent.

Last year, in the aftermath of the murder, the UK government declared it would establish a National Action Plan on the Safety of Journalists as a commitment to press freedom and the safety of journalists in the UK. However, in February 2020 the plan is yet to be implemented and RSF urged the government to act. 

In addition, the UK has dropped two places to 35th out of 180 countries in the RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

“With coronavirus and other converging crises presenting unprecedented threats to press freedom globally, it is more important than ever for democratic states to lead by example. The UK should be performing better on the World Press Freedom Index, and must address these domestic concerns as a matter of priority. Concrete steps should be taken to ensure the safety of journalists in the wake of Lyra McKee’s murder, and Julian Assange should be released - and certainly not extradited to the US”, said RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent.
UK report reveals surveillance of journalists

A report published on 5th March 2020 by the U.K. Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, an independent body which monitors surveillance programmes by government agencies, reveals that authorities requested six warrants for surveillance efforts in relation to “journalistic confidential material” in 2018. The report also found that 203 communications data requests were made in “in relation to an individual of journalistic profession” in 2018. While the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) welcomes the report, it stated:

The commissioner’s office needs to provide much more detailed disclosures to help journalists in the U.K. understand who is investigating them and enable recourse in cases of abuse,” - CPJ Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch in Washington, D.C.